The Razor’s Edge Chapter 3

ON THE FOLLOWING evening I took the Blue Train to the Riviera and two or three days later went over to Antibes to see Elliott and give him news of Paris. He looked far from well. The cure at Montecatini had not done him the good he expected, and his subsequent wanderings had exhausted him. He found a baptismal font in Venice and then went on to Florence to buy the triptych he had been negotiating for. Anxious to see these objects duly placed, he went down to the Pontine Marshes and put up at a miserable inn where the heat had been hard to bear. His precious purchases were a time on the way, but determined not to leave till he had accomplished his purpose, he stayed on. He was delighted with the effect when at last everything was in order, and he showed me with pride the photographs he had taken. The church, though small, had dignity, and the restrained richness of the interior was proof of Elliott’s good taste.

“I saw an early Christian sarcophagus in Rome that took my fancy and I deliberated a long time about buying it, but in the end I thought better of it.”

“What on earth did you want with an early Christian sarcophagus, Elliott?”

“To put myself in it, my dear fellow. It was of a very good design, and I thought it would balance the font on the other side of the entrance, but those early Christians were stumpy little fellows and I shouldn’t have fitted in. I wasn’t going to lie there till the Last Trump with my knees doubled up to my chin like a foetus. Most uncomfortable.”

I laughed, but Elliott was serious.

“I had a better idea. I’ve made all arrangements, with some difficulty, but that was to be expected, to be buried in front of the altar at the foot of the chancel steps, so that when the poor peasants of the Pontine Marshes come up to take the Sacrament they’ll clump over my bones with their heavy shoes. Rather chic, don’t you think? Just a plain stone slab with my name on it and a couple of dates. Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice. If you seek his monument, look around, you know.”

“I do know enough Latin to understand a hackneyed quotation, Elliott,” I said tartly.

“I beg your pardon, my dear fellow. I’m so accustomed to the crass ignorance of the upper classes, I forgot for the moment that I was talking to an author.”

He scored.

“But what I wanted to say to you was this,” he continued. “I’ve left proper instructions in my will, but I want you to see they’re carried out. I will not be buried on the Riviera among a lot of retired colonels and middle-class French people.”

“Of course I’ll do what you wish, Elliott, but I don’t think we need plan for anything like that for many years to come.”

“I’m getting on, you know, and to tell you the truth I shan’t be sorry to go. What are those lines of Landor’s? ‘I’ve warmed both hands …’ ”

Though I have a bad verbal memory, the poem is very short and I was able to repeat it.

“I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.

Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art;

I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”

“That’s it,” he said.

I could not but reflect that it was only by a violent stretch of the imagination that Elliott could fit the epigram to himself.

“It expresses my sentiments exactly,” he said, however. “The only thing I could add to it is that I’ve always moved in the best society in Europe.”

“It would be difficult to squeeze that into a quatrain.”

“Society is dead. At one time I had hopes that America would take the place of Europe and create an aristocracy that the hoi polloi would respect, but the depression has destroyed any chance of that. My poor country is becoming hopelessly middle-class. You wouldn’t believe it, my dear fellow, but last time I was in America a taxi driver addressed me as brother.”

But though the Riviera, still shaken by the crash of ’twenty-nine, was not what it had been, Elliott continued to give parties and go to parties. He had never frequented Jews, making an exception only for the family of Rothschild, but the grandest parties were being given now by members of the chosen race, and when there was a party Elliott could not bear not to go to it. He wandered through these gatherings, graciously shaking the hand of one or kissing that of another, but with a kind of forlorn detachment like an exiled royalty who felt a trifle embarrassed to find himself in such company. The exiled royalties, however, had the time of their lives, and to meet a film star seemed the height of their ambitions. Nor had Elliott ever looked with approval on the modern practice of treating members of the theatrical profession as persons whom you met socially; but a retired actress had built herself a sumptuous residence in his immediate neighborhood and kept open house. Cabinet ministers, dukes, great ladies stayed with her for weeks on end. Elliott became a constant visitor.

“Of course it’s a very mixed crowd,” he told me, “but one doesn’t have to talk to people one doesn’t want to. She’s a compatriot of mine and I feel I ought to help her out. It must be a relief to her house guests to find someone who can talk their own language.”

Sometimes he was obviously so far from well that I asked him why he didn’t take things more easily.

“My dear fellow, at my age one can’t afford to fall out. You don’t think I’ve moved in the highest circles for nearly fifty years without realizing that if you’re not seen everywhere you’re forgotten.”

I wondered if he realized what a lamentable confession he was then making. I had not the heart to laugh at Elliott any more; he seemed to me a profoundly pathetic object. Society was what he lived for, a party was the breath of his nostrils, not to be asked to one was an affront, to be alone was a mortification; and, an old man now, he was desperately afraid.

So the summer passed. Elliott spent it scurrying from one end of the Riviera to the other, lunching in Cannes, dining in Monte Carlo, and exercising all his ingenuity to fit in a tea party here and a cocktail party there; and however tired he felt, taking pains to be affable, chatty, and amusing. He was full of gossip and you could trust him to know the details of the latest scandal before anyone but the parties immediately concerned. He would have stared at you with frank amazement had you suggested to him that his existence was futile. He would have thought you distressingly plebian.